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South African diplomacy: Challenges as opportunities

Klaus Kotzé

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Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa is seeking to regain the respect and authority it held in its early years of democracy. Its diplomacy is undertaking creative avenues to recapture influence and steer public persuasion, especially regarding Africa. Its embrace of challenges as opportunities suggests strategic urgency. 

In early September a wave of violence spilled over the streets of South Africa’s Gauteng province. In many reported cases the targets of the mob were small businesses owned by foreign, mainly African, nationals. The incidents quickly became labelled as xenophobia and follow similar intermittent incidents over the last decade which have tarnished South Africa’s image and influence, especially in Africa. This episode has been the first of its kind under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. Government’s response to the situation presents several insights that guide understanding of South Africa’s renewed approach to international diplomacy, notably regarding Africa.

A tarnished image

The reasons for the recent violence are complex and diverse. As in previous episodes, legitimate disquiet surrounding national concerns became hijacked by vigilantes; combustible national conditions sparked. These events played out in the days leading up to the World Economic Forum Africa. The Cape Town-based event attracts influential African and international guests. It is a carefully constructed South African exhibition to attract and persuade investor confidence. Instead of curating an appealing image, South Africa was smeared in the press and by African dignitaries. Nigeria publicly rebuked South Africa and boycotted the event. In supposed retaliation, a number of South African franchises in Nigeria were looted. While there was no proof that Nigerians were specifically targetted, Abuja retorted with unprecedented threats, dramatically escalating tensions between Africa’s two largest economies. Early signs of a continental challenge for supremacy are surfacing. Nigeria’s Foreign Minister warned that it “will take definitive measures to ensure safety and protection of her citizens…we are hoping to see the possibility of sending some security agents”. Hundreds of Nigerian citizens were repatriated from South Africa through the efforts of local airline, Air Peace.

Regaining control

Pretoria’s response to domestic and continental animosity has been instructive. After the events in Gauteng, Pretoria has set out to appropriate attention through a charm offensive aimed at regaining control of the national narrative. Its international diplomacy has taken on the frank, proactive approach that is proving to be symptomatic of the new government. It has spoken out against criminality and violence; Ramaphosa has insisted that “South Africans are not xenophobic, not against nationals from other countries, we welcome people from other countries”. Instead, Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has said that the media has misrepresented the violence as xenophobic and “is very keen to keep this impression alive”. Pandor’s indictment against the media moves to close the forensic argument by instructively detailing the programmes that the government is implementing to address lawlessness and illegal migration. Significantly, the transformation here is from reacting to leading; through specifics, government takes authoritative control over the shaping of the story.

Pandor used her recent address to the United Nations General Assembly to atypically atone for domestic actions. Pandor made South Africa’s repudiation of intolerance the focus of her speech. She berated “the incidents of violence and looting… (as)regrettable and shameful for a nation with such as proud history of struggle and international solidarity support. The government of South Africa strongly condemned these actions and is working harder to insuring we address the security lapses…South Africa has an unwavering commitment to our continent, Africa”. This confession of guilt suggests Pretoria’s urgency to win over Africa. The rejection of intolerance forms part of a positive message that attracts continental endorsement.

Steering the story

Both Ramaphosa and Pandor recognize the breakdown in law and order as an opportunity to lead. This is a key approach that the new government has adopted. Instead of averting tensions, it has sought to shape perceptions. A day after water cannons and stun grenades dispersed crowds protesting against criminality and Gender-Based Violence outside the World Economic Forum Africa, Ramaphosa called off his address to the Forum to speak to the protesters as they gathered outside Parliament. His symbolic performance did not simply reject the Forum. It proved his authority and sense of urgency. He allayed the protesters, declaring ‘enough is enough’, a key slogan of the crowd. That evening, on national television, he proposed several interventions and called for a rare special sitting of both houses of Parliament to debate the issues in their seriousness. Throughout his communications, Ramaphosa employs ethos and pathos appeals, seizing opportunities for persuasion. At the funeral of controversial former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Ramaphosa seemingly changed his speech after being booed by the audience. Referring to the violence directed at foreign nationals, some of whom were Zimbabwean, he offered “a national apology…on behalf of the people of South Africa for what has happened over the last few weeks”. After expressing his remorse the crowd’s jeers turned to cheers.

Strategic positioning

Ramaphosa’s government is positioning itself favourably in order to advance its public diplomacy, especially on the continent. Following the attacks on African nationals, Ramaphosa announced his dispatch of high ranking envoys to a number of African countries. Pretoria’s unprecedented charge to promote social cohesion and perform Pan-Africanism is proving fortuitous. The Presidency has reported that leaders of the states visited by the envoys have relayed their “expressed appreciation” and their “concern” of the “irresponsible use of social media by certain individuals to create confusion and tension in the public mind”. Ramaphosa further announced his invitation of former Presidents, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique to lead a fact-finding mission into the episode and to make recommendations to prevent future incidents. This approach extends to South Africa’s foreign policy a tested tactic of Ramaphosa, to lead after bringing a diverse group of stakeholders around the same table. This consensus-driven approach masters a situation, affords legitimacy to practice and instructs future action.

South Africa’s shuttle diplomacy to dispel negative African perceptions forms a foundational part of the new government’s strategy. According to Minister Pandor, South Africa’s foreign policy “will reiterate the centrality of the African continent…(and) focus increasingly on economic diplomacy”. In his special sitting of Parliament, Ramaphosa affirmed solidarity with the continent. He claimed:“our fortunes are linked to those of our fellow African nations…rather than retreating into a laager, we must embrace African integration and the benefits it will bring”. This charge not simply rejects animosity, it effectively drives engagement and concomitant benefits. This is confirmed by the president’s very next comment addressing the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The Agreement, says Ramaphosa: “will fundamentally reshape the economies of our continent, and we need to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created”. Pandor’s address to the General Assembly further stressed the significance of the Agreement: “it will unleash Africa’s economic potential and consolidate its position as a new frontier of new economic growth and development”.

South Africa’s public diplomacy charge takes place at a time of strategic opportunity. It currently serves its first of two years as a non-permanent member to the United Nations Security Council. Here it insists that it represents the entire continent and the African Union. In 2020, for the first time since 2003, South Africa will also assume the chair the African Union. Its displays in 2019 are strategically laying the foundation for its advance, in 2020 and beyond.

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Africa

South Sudan: Progress on peace agreement ‘limps along’

MD Staff

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Although the transitional government in South Sudan continues to function, with state governors now appointed, among other developments, progress on the 2018 peace agreement “limps along”, the top UN official in the country told a virtual meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday. 

David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), updated ambassadors on the country’s ongoing political and security situations, which are unfolding amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an upturn in inter-communal violence in Jonglei and other states. 

“COVID-19 has slowed implementation of the peace agreement, including meeting key benchmarks, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame”, he said, speaking from the capital, Juba. 

“We are seeing a reversion to ‘business as usual’ where progress on the peace agreement itself limps along.” 

The peace agreement was the latest deal in efforts to end political infighting and violent conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation. 

The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into chaos roughly two-and-a-half years later following an impasse between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. 

Progress ‘painfully slow’ 

Today, South Sudan now has five vice presidents who head clusters of ministries where activities are progressing well, according to Mr. Shearer. 

“Elsewhere, however, progress has been painfully slow”, he reported.  “Cabinet meetings occur irregularly, and the South Sudanese want to see the President and vice presidents meeting and working collectively.” 

Meanwhile, there has been “almost no movement” on security sector reform, while the Transitional National Legislative Assembly has yet to be reconstituted, which is delaying progress on the Constitution. 

Mr. Shearer said these continuing delays risk pushing elections out well beyond the timeline prescribed under the agreement, which will only add to the people’s growing disillusionment. 

Inter-communal tensions remain high 

The UN mission chief also briefed on the violence among Nuer, Murle and Dinka communities in Jonglei State over the past six months, which has left 600 people dead and homes torched, with women and children kidnapped. The situation has since calmed though tensions remain high. Mr. Shearer said a recent meeting among senior leaders, organized by UNMISS, was encouraging. 

However, the mission was thwarted in attempts to deploy peacekeepers following attacks launched by the National Salvation Front armed group in areas of Central Equatoria state, which were met by heavy government fire. 

“For the past three weeks, the usual mechanisms through which UNMISS coordinates its movement have seriously deteriorated. COVID-19 can be partly blamed but the influence of hardliners in the security forces is the principal obstacle,” he said. 

Later in the meeting, South Sudanese activist and feminist, Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai, shared her concerns about the ongoing inter-communal violence and the need for greater women’s participation in governance and peacebuilding.   

She called on the international community to urgently support local civil society organizations, particularly those led by women. 

“Another way to help address the cycle of violence is to ensure transitional justice is made a priority. We cannot except citizens who lost their loved ones, or whose loved ones have been killed, to forgive and move on without healing and accountability.  This is unrealistic and will only encourage conflict,” said Ms. Tai, the Gender and Social Justice Manager with Assistance Missions for Africa. 

Violence impacts humanitarians 

Mr. Shearer outlined how South Sudan is faring in the wake of recent floods affecting some 500,000 citizens.  

On Wednesday, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that it is reaching vulnerable families with urgently needed assistance. 

Aid workers have been striving to help communities impacted by the flood waters, as well as the violence, and now the pandemic.  Sometimes they pay a heavy price, as Mr. Shearer pointed out. 

 “This year, seven aid workers have tragically lost their lives and another 144 have been evacuated because of sub-national violence”, he said. 

“This meant an upturn in violence stemming from splintering between and within groups. The difference this year is that external political actors are fuelling these local conflicts with military advice and with heavy weapons.” 

Millions in need 

COVID-19 has only added to the ongoing suffering in South Sudan. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator reported that during the annual hunger season a few months back, some 6.5 million people, or more than half the population, faced severe food insecurity.  

“Overall this year, 7.5 million people now need humanitarian assistance –and that’s close to levels in 2017 when we warned of famine”, Mark Lowcock told the Council.  He added that some 1.3 million under-fives are forecasted to be malnourished: the highest figure in four years. 

The UN relief chief urged ambassadors to fund a $1.9 billion response plan to meet the ever-growing needs. 

Changes at POC sites 

With the transitional government in place and a ceasefire holding, the UN Mission in South Sudan is looking at how to better support peace efforts and protect civilians. 

More than 180,000 people are still living in Protection of Civilian (POC) sites at five UNMISS bases across the country, and Mr. Shearer said the conditions which led to their establishment no longer exist. 

As a result, UNMISS has gradually withdrawn its troops and police from “static duties” at the Bor and Wau POC sites, following consultations with the Government and others, including displaced persons. 

“The spike in subnational violence is occurring in remote areas, not near our POC sites. Therefore, we have to deploy our forces to provide protection where there is greatest need,” he said, emphasizing the need for the UN force to be robust,  nimble and proactive. 

Mr. Shearer explained that following the gradual withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, the POC sites will be under the control of the Government.   

He stressed that no one will be pushed out or asked to leave when this transition occurs, while humanitarian services will continue. 

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Africa

Why Young African Scholars Must Engage the Law and Politics of Africa through New Perspectives

Olalekan Moyosore Lalude

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The Year of Africa was a powerful phase, a transitional moment that saw Africa in liberated black and white images. In one, a woman wearing sunglasses and sitting astride a motorcycle scooter communicated freedom and a promise of a bold future.In another, a smiling, young woman in a polka dot dress wore Independence in a sash, followed by a happy crowd. In yet another, a grinning man borne on the shoulders of two other men in a throbbing crowd, carried a placard that read: COMPLETE INDEPENDENCE 1961. It was the year that saw seventeen African states begin a journey of black statehood. Those images were metaphors of liberty in a continent that had been kept away from deciding the course of its own destiny. 1960 was a beginning and the end of the African struggle.

It was the beginning of the African struggle because Africans in the independent states were transitioning from struggling against colonialism to contending against the political realities of their post-independent states. And it was the end, because those Africans didn’t have to contend against colonialism any more. In the true picture of things, it was a transition from the political control of people who sought the wealth of the continent to a struggle with murderous regimes, and the sad realization of the true damage that colonialism had wreaked in the political arrangement of the people.In Nigeria, it was the beginning of the weaponization of ethnicity and of resentful distrust in state politics.

Africa in the 1960s was a dramatic spectacle of violence, new beginnings and the creation of histories that has informed the present. Independence movements aspired towards liberated African states. The consciousness of colonial restraints inspired actions that marked the trajectory of the continent’s destiny. The political history of Africa’s becoming is a timeline of seesaw moments. Dictators have risen and have fallen in the hubris of forgetfulness thatthe powers that saw to their rise could see to their fall. The legal systems, processes, institutions and the politics of Africa were forged in the turbulence of African history.

Today it is easy to say that Africa has made progress in its strides towards social and political evolution, but the past is a mirror of solutions to present problems. This is why it has become imperative for newer approaches to emerge in the study of law and politics in the context of Africa. Founded in 2020 by me, the Carnelian Journal of Law and Politics is Africa’s response to the need for new insights on law and politics in the African context. This new journal gives young African researchers the opportunity to contribute top quality perspectives to the discourse on the law and politics of Africa. This is important as newer voices are needed to give an inter-generational balance to the debate on African law and politics. And this is why the journal has emerged to bridge the scholarly gap.

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Africa

A Tale of Two Sudans

Simon Wolfe

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For the first time in decades, Sudan is on a path to peace and democracy, turning the fall of a dictatorial regime into a reckoning with entrenched societal fissures and the overhaul of the institutions that reinforced them. On the other hand, South Sudan and its unity government, once a darling of western governments and NGOs as a model for religious freedom and democratic potential, continues to struggle to build peace and stability in the absence of any consolidated, legitimate institutions of authority.

It may be time to re-examine what we think we know about the war that split them apart.

Sudan: A Case for Cautious Optimism

Since the 2019 protests and coup that ended the repressive 30-year reign of dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s transitional government is slowly working to undo decades of damage and emerge from isolation.

In recent weeks, Sudan has signed successive peace deals with rebel forces addressing grievances that have long inhibited a permanent resolution to the conflict. The agreements separate religion from the state and establish a commission for religious freedom mandated to protect the country’s Christian minority. They also grant autonomy to the contested regions of Blue Nile and South Kordofan and set Darfur on a path to reunification under its own governor. An August 31 agreement on Darfur also covers power sharing, security, transitional justice, land ownership and the return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

In addition to completing the peace processes mandated in Sudan’s interim constitution, Sudan has also taken steps to reset relations internationally. Though the transitional government has limited power in this area, indications are encouraging for the potential normalisation of Sudan’s relationship with Israel – which would, in turn, support Sudan’s case for removal from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Positive as the outlook appears to be, Sudan has a long, difficult road to recovery ahead. The transitional government has 26 months left to lay the groundwork for a civilian, democratically elected government to take over. In addition to the colossal challenge of rebuilding institutions nearly from scratch, the pandemic and the global commodity market collapse have generated urgent economic woes.

Moreover, anyone with experience on the ground in Sudan will warn against misplaced confidence at this early stage. Connection with the international community – and international markets – has long served as an incentive to end the conflict, but even the most promising of peace agreements has failed to produce sufficient stability for sustained development.

South Sudan: A Grim Reality

If Sudan calls for cautious optimism, South Sudan demands a reckoning with the failure of the international response.

When South Sudan seceded in 2011, observers were optimistic. Those in the international community – both in the omnipresent NGO sector as well as foreign governments (principally the United States) believed that the oppressed Christian South would finally be free from its Islamic subjugators in the North, and the resolution of this religious divide would finally bring peace to the region. Instead, two years after independence, a brutal civil war broke out between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former First Vice President Riek Machar, displacing significant numbers of people and leaving large swathes of the country reliant on humanitarian aid. Best estimates of numbers killed are upwards of 400,000, which at times has rivaled the war in Syria that received far greater attention.’

So, what happened? How did the Cinderella story of South Sudan’s independence become a nightmare?

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebels turned political party who governed the country at independence, were ill-prepared to fulfil the functions of a state, despite the heavy investment and optimism afforded them by their international supporters leading up to 2011. Well before South Sudan split from the north, NGOs and aid groups had provided the overwhelming majority of state services, often with incorrect or incomplete knowledge of where resources were going. Some organisations even unwittingly provided direct financial to support to militias or funded ‘dialogues’ that served primarily as brand rehabilitation for war lords looking to take advantage of a sprawling and largely unregulated aid industry.

Arguably the international humanitarian response formed the economic, social and political foundations for the South Sudanese state that emerged in 2011. The sad irony is that these foundations have been purged by years of corruption and mismanagement since.

This dynamic followed South Sudan beyond independence, creating a cycle of escalating violence enabled by a steady flow in billions of dollars of humanitarian aid. The assumption that the Southern forces represented a unified Christian bloc fighting for religious freedom and human rights was convenient for warlords seeking resources and legitimacy and appealing to the international NGO and donor community – especially to faith-based aid efforts – but it has proved to be devastating for the millions affected by the ongoing conflict.

Ultimately, because the 2005 peace process took the Southern rebel forces’ branding at face value – with the support of the aid industry – it failed to confront the fragmentation and factionalism that had destroyed South Sudan and anticipate that these fissures would continue and undermine state-building efforts today. Though a tragedy for the South Sudanese, lessons from the failure of peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan may prove valuable to its northern neighbour – and Sudan’s transitional government appears to be learning already.

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